Theme : Japan – The Giant Finally Moves Forward

How Toyota finally put the horse before the cart in what was, in one sense at least, a bit of a Triumph.

Spot The Difference - image :
Spot The Difference – image :

Despite promises of Waku-Doki and its work with EVs, Toyota remains in many ways a cautious company. Once I might have said this with a tinge of contempt, but certainly not now. The motor industry is a dangerous business, yet Toyota has survived and prospered because, generally, they know exactly what they are doing.

By the end of the 1960s, it was clear that front wheel drive was no fad. Even GM had started dabbling with it in, of all things, the 7 litre Oldsmobile Toronado. In Japan, Subaru had produced its 1000 in 1966, Honda the N360 in 1967 and Nissan the E10 Cherry in 1970. But Toyota waited. And waited. Finally, in 1978, Toyota revealed its toe-in-the-water exercise in front wheel drive, the Tercel. Naturally they had been biding their time, assessing the various forays into FWD by other manufacturers.

Would they follow the Issigonis route with a transverse engine and integrated gearbox, or Dante Giacosa’s more pragmatic method of transverse engine and gearbox in line, with unequal length driveshafts? Would they use Renault’s layout of a longitudinally mounted engine with a gearbox out front or maybe look at Citroen’s and Alfa’s flat 4 layouts? But, no, instead they had been looking closely at a near outsider, a car introduced 13 years before that had not even fulfilled its maker’s expectations.

Spot The Similarity
Spot The Similarity

The Triumph 1300 was introduced in 1965, joining its larger 2000 cousin as a well-appointed saloon. At this time, Leyland had not joined with BMC, so they were looking at the successful FWD Issigonis Mini and 1100 as competition, and wondering how to produce a credible alternative. One aim was to avoid the apparent complexity of the transverse layout of the BMC cars, which alienated cautious buyers. On the other hand, they sought to emulate the 1100’s praised handling. They therefore settled on a longitudinal layout with the engine ahead of the gearbox but, to minimise nose heaviness and overhang, the gearbox sat low, with the crownwheel beneath the sump and crankshaft, allowing the engine to sit a bit further back.


This resulted in a high bonnet line, and the car itself was quite high, though this had the effect of making it feel more like a small, traditional luxury saloon with a more commanding view than, say, a Vanden Plas 1100. With comfortable seats, great headroom and a decent driving position, the final car had definite virtues, though possibly with too much appeal to the conservative retiree when it might have been tapping into the quasi-egalitarian Sixties market.

Suspension was by semi trailing arms at the rear and double wishbones up front though, sadly but predictably, its image was somewhat tarnished by poor development engineering, particularly its front suspension. It sold adequately well, at around 140,000 over 5 years which, put into context, was a typical annual figure for BMC’s ADO16, and the bodyshell went on to a long, if retrograde, 15 year life, ending up as the rear driven Toledo, 1500TC and, finally, Dolomite, including the Championship winning Sprint.

So, in many ways it is odd that this is the car that Toyota chose as their inspiration, but it did. To some degree you can see why. The Triumph’s concept was sound enough. Even if the 1300 was never as agile as the BMC 1100, it offered less problematic solutions, especially if engineered by a company that didn’t have the slipshod development culture of the UK industry – up front, Toyota’s changing to Macpherson struts addressed one particular shortcoming of the 1300.  It would also have appeared a less daunting proposition to mechanics in Toyota’s World market. There were other advantages; the second generation Tercel from 1982 featured the option of a four wheel drive version, with a straightforward drive to the rear taken off the back of the gearbox, Audi style.

But Toyota was careful not to burn any bridges with the Tercel. It was brought in as a new model, larger than the Starlet, but slightly smaller than the blessed Corolla. This latter model’s fourth generation was released in 1979, the year after the Tercel. Developed with a strict brief not to alienate its loyal customer base, the Corolla retained a live axle, but did at least make the technological leap from leaf to coil springs, combined with better axle location.

Variant - image :
Variant – image :

Produced in two, three and four door versions, and with a pleasantly compact look in notchback form at least, the Tercel was well received.  Presumably encouraged by this, together with the fact that the US Big Three were all releasing mainstream front driven models, Toyota finally felt confident enough to engineer both the 1983 Corolla and the 1984 Starlet with front driven drivetrains.

But, much as it would be nice to point to modern day Toyotas and recognise a little bit of Triumph in their make up, these two espoused the new orthodoxy, with a transverse engine and side mounted gearbox, and Toyota have never looked back. In 1987, the third generation Tercel, confusingly known as Corolla II in Europe, also turned its engine through 90 degrees and the influence of Coventry was no more.

34 thoughts on “Theme : Japan – The Giant Finally Moves Forward”

  1. Enjoyed the article, especially that old brochure. If deluxe didn’t quite cut it you could upgrade to Hi-Deluxe! Equipped with a sporty 3 spoke steering wheel and is that a velour interior?

    1. Hi-Deluxe indeed! And it’s nice that every trim level has a different steering wheel. On most Fords of that era you’d have to go round the back and read the badge.

  2. A very interesting article. In the 1960s Triumph were coming up with some very capable solutions, and their FWD drive train had a number of virtues (although whether it was a good fit for their sporting brand was another question). But, like their British peers, quality was not what it could have been.

    That Toyota kept a weather eye on the state of the FWD art before making their own leap says everything. Their approach to development is conservative and iterative; components and processes are carried from one generation to the next with detail changes to improve operation, reliability and cost. The change from RWD to FWD would have necessitated a largely new and unproven set of components: anathema to Toyota, where every part and price must be proven. In that respect, their pioneering of hybrid technology is something of an anomaly.

    1. I should perhaps clarify that I was not damning Toyota with faint praise; I admire their cautious approach. The alternative is half baked engineering, or to forever be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  3. What is both admirable and frustrating about Toyota is how much they respect their own product. They are, after all, the company that calls the Crown, with no hint of irony, ‘The Living Legend’. The brief for the E70 Corolla being developed in live-axled saloon form at the same time as the Tercel contains the following :

    “Corolla has an illustrious tradition. Now, let us build our new Corolla on that tradition, the kind of new Corolla we know the drivers of the world will expect.”

    Although I probably viewed that Corolla as the dullest car imaginable, others didn’t. If I’d read the above from GM, I’d just think of it as weaselly, cynical bullshit. Somehow, coming from a Japanese manufacturer, I don’t. Of course that sort of corporate culture runs the risk of making you blind to your product’s shortcomings. But it’s still something that other manufacturers would do well to take note of ….. Unlearn Ford?

  4. I once owned a Mk1 Yaris – it was great and I found its styling – inside and out – a source of much joy and I never ceased to admire the completeness and singularity of it as a piece of design. Surprisingly, it did not wear that well, and after three years and some 40k miles, I was replacing bushes and links and other suspension components that made it almost as burdensome as my C6 in that regard. It also lagged the Mk1 Skoda Fabia (which was utterly charmless inside) in terms of NVH and ride quality (I had one once as a hire car when the Yaris was in for a service and it took me to Christchurch and back in amazing quiet and comfort.

    The Triumph 1500/ Toledo/ Dolomite “family” shown always struck me as a set of engineering curios, only rivaled by the later Renault 21, which switched between transverse and longitudinal engine configs depending on engine size. Sadly, for Triumph, engineering and production quality waned in the Leyland years and the marque ended with little Acclaim (boom-tish), albeit the latter was a far better car than most think (if LJKS was a fan, who are we to argue?).

    1. We nearly got a Yaris Verso as a London work runabout, but I was concerned about the fragility of some of its fittings. It sounds as though that problem was more than skin deep. At the time I went for a drive in the Yaris hatchback and I too liked its design. But, for our purposes, a Mark 1 Kangoo was the better choice in the end.

    2. Er, no, the more prosaic one on the south coast of England.

      I’ve decided to write a separate piece to elaborate on my appreciation of the Yaris Mk1 … it’s about time!

    3. But you drove there from Auckland, right?

      It sounds like your Yaris piece will be on a par with Eoin’s love/hate relationship with his Ka.

  5. This story had me climbing the creaky stairs to my archive. CAR December 1982 has this, in a test of the second generation Tercel – the first and only Tercel we got in the UK – by Roger Bell.

    “The world’s second biggest car maker had no front drive model until 1978 when the original Tercel, conceived a decade before and then mothballed pending a more favourable investment climate, was launched.”

    These four words: conceived a decade before…

    It makes perfect sense. Toyota copied the Triumph ‘Ajax’ configuration in 1967-68, improved it in several areas, and shelved it as a hedge against the domestic market falling head over heels in love with front wheel drive. The timing is right. Honda and Subaru were already doing FWD, Prince were developing the Issigonis-inspired car which would become the Datsun Cherry.

    The styling of the first generation Tercel / Corsa bears it out too. The four door has Ajax-like proportions, the Corsa hatchback shows BMC ADO16 inspiration. Both look like mid-late ’60s cars superficially facelifted with mid ’70s styling features – rectangular headlights, chunky tail lights, black bumpers.

    The Toyota take on Harry Webster’s configuration had several advantages over the original – a much simpler and lighter sump and final drive arrangement – Triumph had a needlessly massive iron casting which combined the sump and differential housing. The Japanese design allowed more flexibility with gearboxes, they were able to offer four and five speed manuals and an automatic.

    It’s worth noting that Triumph’s FWD dalliance had ended with the arrival of the 1500TC in autumn 1973. A nation didn’t mourn.

    By late 1982, when the second generation Tercel arrived, the longitudinal-engined FWD layout was a spent force at Toyota. The very well worked out transverse-engined Camry had been launched at the start of the year, and the only raison d’etre for the purloined Triumph configuration was the facility to provide drive to the rear axle, in the prescient proto-CUV Tercel 4WD wagon.

    A decade and a half before, Triumph had a working 4WD system and a 1300 estate. Neither made it to production. Add these to the roster of regret…

    1. Robertas. Oh for a well ordered archive up some creaky stairs. I end up relying too often on my even creakier memory.

      It’s certainly plausible that they started development 10 years before. By 1972, say, the Triumph would have been hard to sell to management as a template. But I can’t imagine it would have been brought that close to its final form, then put to one side. I see it more as being tinkered with over a long gestation period. For instance its A Series engine was a much later development.

      Inevitably the car has Ajax proportions, but it looks like it was drawn by someone who’d also seen the Fiat 128. As for the hatchback’s somewhat incongruous ADO16 type rear, that’s a willful theme that Toyota returned to with the mid 90s Corolla for some odd reason.

      When we look at the 1300 as a dead end, that’s only because it was undeveloped. Audi have done very well for themselves with an engine-out-front configuration that made no attempt to address packaging and understeer. The only thing I don’t envy you about your archive is the ability to get easy access to the huge litany of incompetence, arrogance, laziness, small-mindedness, indecisiveness, ignorance, snobbery, etc, etc, etc ….. that did for the UK industry. It’s too sad to think about that often.

    2. That’s very interesting information, Robertas. It seems that Toyota used this longitudinal layout when there were a lot of different FWD setups around in the sixties and early seventies. By the time the FWD Corolla was conceived, it was already much clearer that a transverse engine was becoming the norm, so they joined that mainstream. For example, both Ford and GM swithed to that layout for their small family cars around 1980.

      The second generation Tercel was a very common vehicle in Switzerland, by the way. Not so much the hatchback, but the 4WD estate with its vertical third side window and the asymmetric rear numberplate placement. Together with the Subarus that were becoming very common at that time, they marked the beginning of the 4WD success story in the Alpine regions.

      The trim designations made me smile as well – Deluxe being the second lowest of them… It reminds me of the time when “Luxe” was about the most stripped down trim you could imagine on a Citroën ID – plastic upholstery, no armrests, barely covered sheet metal inside, etc.

  6. A bit surprising you all seem to forget the Saab 99 which came out in 1968. This had the slant four engine bought in from Triumph and had the gearbox under the engine for FWD. Of course, Saab being Saab, the clutch was at the front. All I can find says the gearbox was an highly uprated version of the Triumph 1300’s, but considering it still incorporated a freewheel mechanism and worked backwards, as it were, the actual similarities may have not been that great. I don’t know, perhaps someone here does.

    The specs/brochures are available gratis on line at:

    The Tercels, especially Mark 1, were sold in great numbers in these parts and distinguished themselves as never ever giving up mechanically, while trailing various rusty bits along the road. The roof and two longerons imbedded in either sill are what dragged the rear of the car along with the front when external sheet metal had all but dissolved!

    1. I’d thought to mention Saabs, but I too came up against the question of how much its layout was derived from the Ford engined 96, which of course was derived from the 2 stroke. The freewheel thing confused me too, Certainly if the gearbox was 1300 derived, it was either very capable or extensively re-engineered if it also went on to do service in the Turbo.

  7. Hang on chaps; I think you might be conflating drivetrain layouts a bit here.

    The SAAB 99 had (IIRC!) a Hi-Vo chain and the gearbox underneath the engine. It was an ‘Inline-Issigonis, if you will. Except sensibly, SAAB separated the sump oil from the tranny oil via a baffle plate.

    The Tercel’s layout was certainly a development of the Ajax, but it was also more closely-related to the NSU K70 (re-badged as a VW at the last minute) layout. That car also suffered oddly high-legged proportions, but that was in part due to utilising the Ro80’s very long-travel McP strut/semi-trailing arm suspension.

    One could thus argue it was more of a Japanese K70 than Ajax. Like the Subaru 1000 was a Lloyd Arabella…

    Incidentally, Audi has abandoned the transaxle and MLB now takes FWD from the rear of the tranny using a clever. diagonal jackshaft, thus avoiding the awkwardly bulky transfer case used in most (AWD) premium cars. So it’s quasi-K70 as the diff is at the side of the sump.

    1. I find myself wondering if NSU had a good look at the Ajax layout when devising the K70 drivetrain. The quill shaft running to the idler gears runs to the rear of the gearbox in both, whereas the Tercel has a shorter shaft driving idler gears to the front of the gearbox. The K70 also has a similar clutch access cover to the Ajax’s light steel pressing, which could be removed from inside the car allowing a clutch replacement with the engine and gearbox in situ.

      Each of the designs has a different approach to modularity. Triumph housed the gearbox, clutch and final drive, in one massive casting, which also served as the engine’s sump. Although there’s no unseemly and unhealthy sharing of lubricants, the influence of Greek Al is manifest.

      The Toyota design is cleverly discrete, a complete opposite to the Triumph’s in terms of modularity. The gearbox and idler gears have one housing, the clutch bellhousing and final drive share another, The engine block and sump are much as you would expect to find in a RWD or end-on transverse arrangement,
      unaffected by the unorthodoxy behind and below.

      The NSU design is described thus in Autocar 11 November 1971: “In effect the final drive and clutch housing form a nucleus, rubber mounted to the chassis, to which the engine and gearbox are mounted”.

      The NSU’s final drive is located below numbers 3 and 4 cylinders – Triumph placed theirs below no.2, Toyota’s is just ahead of no.4.

      Make of this what you will – I’m surprised how similar NSU’s design is to Triumph, and how much Toyota’s differs from the other two.


    2. The K70 is such an oddity. NSU were quite right to want a model to fit between the rear-engined Prinz and the Ro80 but, In hindsight, their ambitions, just 10 years after they actually started producing cars, seem naive in many ways. Toyota would never have done it that way but, if the whole gamble had worked ……

      So did NSU take a lead from the 1300 too? I’m sure their engineers would have been very stretched by that time so, without the Toyota’s comfortably long gestation period, they are less likely to have thought of improvements.

      Since the Prinz series had transverse rear mounted engines, there is the thought that they might have gone the transverse route for the K70, though I assume that would have compromised the use of the Ro80s front suspension.


      Saab 99

      Triumph 1300


    3. A lot of the K70s tallness of bonnet was the rather tall OHC engine added to the aforementioned drivetrain.

  8. EDIT: The 99 had an Issigonis-like 3-gear train, not a Hi-Vo chain. Apologies…

    1. Thanks for the clarification Rainer. Nice of you to stop by.

  9. Interesting point about the K70’s quill shaft to the primary shaft; one can only presume it acted as a ‘spacer’ because that’s where the diff would have been in a Ro80-type layout.

    But it does obviate the requirement for that inefficient, whiney extra transfer cog.

  10. Yet another manufacturer had a go at a Triumph 1300-like layout, although it never saw production:

    From around 1968, so post-Ajax, but pre-K70. Any guesses who?

    1. Had it been available on the Triumph 1300 could Macpherson struts at the front have changed things for the better in relation to its FWD rivals, additionally how could the 1300’s rear suspension been improved?

  11. I can’t believe this has taken nearly three years.

    Charles is right. The engine was codenamed ‘400’ but also was more romantically known as “The lion of Buchenau”.

    It’s far more advanced than any of Wartburg’s other DDR-era four stroke prototypes, and I suspect that some fellow travellers who had travelled west to Neckarsulm in search of a better life had been sending K70 drawings to Eisenach. A lot of that sort of thing was going on, and from what I have been told, the West German government were relaxed about the matter as they wanted Saxony and Thuringia to remain a technological and manufacturing powerhouse, in anticipation of future unification.

    1. Since the development period of the ‘400’ engine is stated as 1968-72, it could not have been legitimately influenced by the K70, details of which became available (as an NSU) at the 1969 Geneva Salon, although VW insisted the actual car was not shown.

      My suggestion is that, some time before, somebody in Neckarsulm was sending drawings to Eisenach which Konrad von Freyberg would have found very useful for designing the ‘400’ drivetrain. The transmission is more of a ‘smoking gun’ in the evidence trail, but the engine has many similarities – refer to the cross-section a few comments back:

      Centrally located camshaft operating opposed valves through finger rockers.
      K70 valve angle is 65 degrees – Wartburg prototype looks close to this.
      Wartburg 400 bore and stroke is 83 x 73.6. K70 proportions are 82 x 76 (although VW increased the bore by 1mm when they adopted the design)
      Both engines are slant-mounted – makes sense given the final drive below the sump.

      There are also significant differences:

      NSU crankcase casting extends well below the main bearing centreline. Wartburg 400 crankcase is split on the main bearing centreline.
      The NSU’s camshaft is driven by single-run double-roller chain, the Wartburg 400 uses a toothed rubber belt. Perhaps Konrad was also receiving dispatches from Dingolfing…
      Wartburg eschewed the complexity of the NSU head casting, with its individually accessible rocker housings, which allowed access for valve clearance adjustment with the release of a spring clip. Great for motorbikes, but needlessly complicated for a mainstream passenger car. BMW and Glas agreed.

      So not a carbon copy, but it’s hard to believe that NSU and Wartburg came up with such similar designs just by happy coincidence.

    1. Would it be correct to say the 1600cc Wartburg 400 motor spun off a 60 hp 1200cc 3-cylinder Wartburg 234 petrol and a 34 hp 1103cc 3-cylinder 3VD8-7,65 diesel iteration planned for the Trabant P601?

      An intriguing idea if the engine was indeed K70 inspired or influenced considering the latter apparently started out as an air-cooled 4-cylinder in the Prinz 1000 and Typ 110.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: